Lake Powell and Lake Mead Water Levels Drop to Historic Lows

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U.S.|Two of America’s largest reservoirs reach record lows amid lasting drought.

Lake Powell in southern Utah last month.
Credit...Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

John Schwartz

  • July 27, 2021

The water level in Lake Powell has dropped to the lowest level since the U.S. government started filling the enormous reservoir on the Colorado River in the 1960s — another sign of the ravages of the Western drought.

On Monday, the pool elevation in Lake Powell, which stretches from Utah into Arizona, had dropped to 3,554 feet. (On Tuesday, it stood at 3,555 feet.) The water level has plunged as the American West experiences what scientists are calling a “megadrought.”

Too little water is coming into the lake, and too much is being sent downriver to maintain levels in Lake Mead, which is also at historically low levels. The two reservoirs, among the largest in the United States, are part of a river system that provides water to more than 40 million people.

The dams that hold back the water on the lakes produce hydropower for many Western states, and electric production from the Hoover Dam at Lake Mead has dropped by about 25 percent during the drought.

Rising temperatures and a lack of rainfall linked to climate change in the West have also contributed to the southern portion of Utah’s Great Salt Lake reaching a new low, with more decline expected in the coming months, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Last month, the federal Bureau of Reclamation released a 24-month study showing that the amount of water flowing into Lake Powell had dropped sharply in the previous six months, and issued a prediction of a 79 percent chance that Lake Powell would fall below 3,525 feet “sometime in the next year,” which could lead to stricter water restrictions.

At that time, Wayne Pullan, the Upper Colorado Basin regional director for the bureau, said, “This is a serious situation.”

Brad Udall, a senior climate scientist at Colorado State University, was more blunt: “I’m struggling to come up with words to describe what we’re seeing here,” he said.

The effects of climate change and water use management have led to “off the charts” water depletion, he said, comparing the water restriction measures that are currently in place to a parachute. “I worry that the parachute is not big enough,” he said, “and that we didn’t deploy it soon enough.”

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